Pamela Haines, 2008
To the Bone; The Journey to Gulu
Bone weary after two night flights
we step off the plane in equatorial Africa
refresh ourselves in the cool of a colonial hotel
(I fret, impatient for reality)
then set off in our ragged little bus piled high with baggage
for the north.
Twenty years of civil war, unspeakable atrocities on both sides
have cut the north from normalcy.
The trip had seemed too risky till last year.
A shaky peace now holds.
Shake off fatigue, the war—here all is new.
Past the city center open air shops line the street
beds and chairs made and sold, car repair, food stalls
bikes piled high and wide, a multitude of taxi vans
then countryside—palms, big cactus trees
women walking, balancing their loads.
The road gets worse,
what used to be a three hour trip now stretched to five.
We slalom around potholes
veer off to the shoulder, try the other lane.
Relief at signs of road repair short lived—
stretches of graded earth and smooth new surface
have endless little piles of sand to slow us down.
Come almost to a stop, ease over one
then pick up speed in time to slow down for the next.
One section is like lace,
deep rounded potholes in a filigree of macadam.
Both lanes have been abandoned,
drivers opting for the rutted shoulder
as the quicker way.
Is there a plan to make this journey so bone jarring
so achingly slow
because it’s headed north?
Five hours pass.
My hopes pin on the Nile, the border of the north
they say it’s not far after that.
On and on and on till finally
we pass a town of refugees
safe below the river
hundreds of walkers line the road
first visible signs of war. I wonder how they live.
We crest a hill, catch sight of water.
Not my image of the Nile
cutting a wide green line through Egypt’s sand.
This is a raging torrent, crashing round bends and over rocks
full of wild and dangerous beauty.
We slow for a picture, are stopped at once by soldiers.
Holding this bridge has kept the rebels pinned above.
The peace is not yet strong
and all our friends within are from the north.
Some of the soldiers strut and ogle, others talk
our friends respond, and helplessly we wait.
Money is passed up front, more talk
more money, and we’re free to leave.
The young Americans who choose the Nile for kayaking
seem very innocent and far away.
We bump and jar into the night and the unknown–
and suddenly there’s fire.
My mind is filled with war atrocities and burning huts
but no one screams or runs.
The fire burns peacefully
my fears a faint echo of those bone chilling times.
Gulu has become for me a town of dreams,
one to drive toward for eternity and never reach.
Then, abruptly, from one moment to the next
it takes shape, we’re in its midst.
Nine hours, weary and wrenched to the bone
I step from the bus
see our friend’s dear smiling face
look up to old Orion in the sky
and know I’m home.
In a Strange Land
There are adventures to be had,
sights and sounds I’m eager to take in—
our first trip into Gulu town
the market at Soroti
country clan life in the east—
I know nothing, soak up all I can.
Routines to master—
When a woman holds a pitcher, offers soap
pours water on my hands into a bowl,
learning to be thorough without waste
of her time or the water
(toward the end, and less an honored guest,
being the one to pour).
Riding the bodaboda sideways on the back
finding where to put my hand to brace
against the bumps and turns.
Parts beyond my reach on this brief trip—
the language (though I dabble at the edge),
the grease the system needs to make it work.
Then things that catch me unawares—
The wind, whose rustle through the leaves
I’ve always known, feels wrong somehow.
It clatters in the palms,
and tall trees that should be cool and green
unbalance me with flowering flaming red.
It’s what I think I know, but don’t
that seems most strange.
Love is love
The toddler’s clothes are dirty
tattered past belief
his mother, missing teeth
is old before her time.
He runs out to a nearby tree
picks up a fallen flower
brings it back
with pure clean open heart
to give to his first love.
Quiet and kind
under a tropical tree
in shabby elegance
at this old inn,
a place of refuge
in a ragged war-torn town,
he speaks of cyanide
sifting evidence and motives
while pink flowers fall.
Scotland Yard then Kenya
for many years a private eye and mind
he has experience and skill,
can open doors and find things out
in face of heavy silence from the law.
He has grown to care
about this life cut down,
this bright spirit
who spoke the truth about the war,
refused to play it safe.
A rising star
made lesser lights seem dim.
His measured kindness steadies us
and we entrust the search for truth
to his good hands.
A weight is lifted,
as another flower falls
and lies in quiet loveliness
on dusty ground.
The palette of this countyside is muted
all grayish green or dusty brown
no flower beds, bright signs or paint.
an exuberance of color—
in bright uniforms
deep green, rich yellow
purple and turquoise, blue and pink.
Hundreds of flowers
in sudden bloom along the roadside
breaking the monochrome
bursting with life.
The Dry Season
Dusty school uniforms
dusty, dusty feet
shoes parked at the door
to keep the worst of it out.
Dust on the roads
roll up the windows when cars go by
pity the ones on bicycle or foot
even so dust in your eyes
your mouth your hair
wipe your face or hands, the sweat is brown.
Quixotic tries at mastery
sweeping the dusty compound
wiping seats off with a handkerchief–
I put my trust in a dust-colored skirt.
Dust in the dusty little library
coating every book
hands give evidence of my labor
like working in the fields.
In other forms this dust can be of use:
bricks shaped and baked from local earth
in little kilns that line the roads
house floors raised, pounded hard,
special clay rubbed in till they’re like tile
earth planted to crops, providing sustenance.
Now it just lies fine and blows.
In two long days of driving, heading home
my hair has taken on the rich red brown
I used to know, a bittersweet good-bye.
I find I do not want
to wash this fine Ugandan dust away.
Ties that Bind
As Gulu town recedes into the distance
and we are on our way
I feel the ties that bind us there
begin to stretch.
Are they strong enough to hold?
Will the tied ends come undone
fly apart and flap loose in the wind?
Will the stretch require too much–
will they snap and leave us jolted and apart?
Will they just grow ever thinner
till they have no substance
like old cobwebs to be brushed away?
All I care about these days it seems
is strengthening those ties
twisting in new strands to make them strong
throwing my love across the ocean
over and over again
making a place for the hearts
thrown back my way
cultivating stretchiness, resilience
calling others to this work of
weaving cables, building bridges, binding hearts.